Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Smoking in the Boys' Room

At 4 AM on the first Tuesday in September of 1969, I woke up in my grandmother's house in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and, three hours or so later, began my junior year of high school in Annandale, Virginia, in a building I had only stepped inside previously, surrounded by teachers and students I had never met. My father dropped me off on his way to his first day at his new job at the Pentagon, and he would pick me up after work to take me to the room we were renting for six weeks until our house became available.

I stood outside the locked door of my homeroom looking at the other students, mostly the girls. One particularly beautiful brunette, who danced even when she walked, took my breath away—and made me glad I was carrying a binder. (As it turns out, I met her first ex-husband on the other side of the world more than a decade later.) Another cute number had nice, firm-looking, sticky-out breasts, the pocket on the front of one of which sported a cigarette package. (Does that hurt, or do the cigarettes get bent?) In fact, it looked like everyone who had shirt pockets, male or female, had cigarette packs in them. Except for me. Wasn't I the virtuous one!

In those good old days, I could go through the entire school routine with only one potty break, and I quickly learned to take that in the gym after PE. Even though selling cigarettes to minors was illegal, the boys' room across from the school office was always thick with smoke, and the others in the building weren't much better. At some point before I graduated, the administration got around to forcing the smokers outdoors, but smoking and smokers were as much a part of high school as shapely girls.

My parents smoked when I was young. I remember many weekend drives with the windows rolled up against Seattle's signature rain, the car filled with smoke. I blamed the migraine headaches that usually ended with reverse parastolsis on my parents' smoking, and I'm sure it didn't do me any good, but I still get those headaches, so that wasn't the culprit. And I was dumbfounded to learn that one of my heroes, Jacques Anquetil, who had owned the Tour de France a few years before, smoked. But I developed a healthy dislike for smoking and, being a descendant of Adam who grasps at any reason to consider myself "like God," considered smokers an inferior breed, especially when they threw butts out the window or dropped them on the ground.

Well, I wouldn't expect to see smoke in the bathrooms at Annandale High School today, nor butts on the ground outside the door to the bus stop. Tobacco taxes make cigarettes prohibitively expensive, and merchants who sell tobacco to minors face draconian consequences. There is simply very little opportunity for kids to smoke anymore.

But our society has embraced a "solution" that solves nothing.

A Clockwork Orange, a movie shunned by evangelicals because of sexuality and violence, deals (at least peripherally) with the question of forced morality. A violent young man is given the opportunity to be programmed to do good, or at least to be sickened by evil. When he asks the prison chaplain whether he should undergo this treatment, the chaplain replies that one cannot be moral without choice and the treatment will not make him good. And at the end of the movie, the young man is "cured"—of wanting to be virtuous.

Our government at all levels is frantically expunging all evil substances, whether tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, saturated and trans fats, or vitamin supplements, from daily life. You can be fined and probably jailed for not buckling your car seat belt. Many people, even evangelicals, want to see the Internet, the freest communication forum the world has ever seen, regulated. All this in the name of making the world a better place and our neighbors better people.

But there will be smokers and nonsmokers, chaste and otherwise, in both heaven and hell. I can't say we do anyone any good by taking away a person's choices in personal matters.

Smoking is stupid—unless you enjoy it, I guess—but I think I'd rather be with people who have chosen to smoke (at least at times when they're either not smoking or downwind from me) than with people who are glad that they aren't given the choice. Someone who knows how to choose is by definition able to choose between life and death, the blessing or the curse, heaven or hell, Jesus or idols. One who prefers not to choose will choose anyway, and wrongly.

Friday, March 11, 2011

It May Be Immoral, but We've Still Gotta Do It

Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—"Let us do evil that good may result"? Their condemnation is deserved. (Rom 3:8)

In our rebellion against God we tend to ask why bad things happen to good people, as though anyone but God were truly good (Mark 10:18). Maybe we should be asking why it is that good people do bad things. Me, for instance: I've earned a certain amount of respect from my peers, so I have some good traits (my wife even likes me), so I have to ask why I have done so many creepy things.

But I'm not alone. How is it that people who are to an impartial observer honest, generous, and sincerely concerned with the glory of God and the good of their neighbors can say in one sentence that a given action is immoral and in the next say it has to be done? I don't know for sure if people do this in other areas, but I have certainly seen it in regards to government policy, and I consider it a natural by-product of the idea that the institution of government makes some people immune to the personal responsibility the governed have to live under.

Here are highly redacted (and so probably slanted) reconstructions of exchanges I have had recently:

They: I hate it when people blame the US for everything.
I: US sanctions single-handedly killed 500,000 Iraqi civilians in the 1990s.
They: Did not!
I: Did too! When Madeleine Albright was asked about those deaths on 60 Minutes, she didn't deny responsibilty; she said, "It was a tough decision, but we think it was worth it." She would know what was going on. Those civilians died because we had no-fly zones and prevented the importation of medicines and equipment for Saddam to rebuild the infrastructure we destroyed in Desert Storm.
They: That's not our fault. We told Saddam he could sell his oil and help his people. He sold the oil on the black market and kept the money.
I: We also gave him the materiel he used to kill his own subjects before Desert Storm.
They: That's not our fault. We gave it to him to use against Iran.

Note their principle here: We gave him the materiel to do X, so we're not responsible for the deaths he caused when he used it to do Y. In other words, even though we knew he was a thug, we provided the opportunity for him to kill those we wanted killed, but when he used that materiel to kill people we're all of a sudden indignant that he killed (I remember no kerfluffle about it at the time), we're not responsible for the evil he did.

I: We should never have gone into Iraq.
They: Correct, but that's a moot point. We did go in. And now we need to stay or the people there will kill each other.

So we're not responsible for Saddam's evil even though we gave him the wherewithal to commit it and didn't complain when he did do it. But if we leave Iraq, the people will kill each other even if we don't give them any materiel, and somehow we'll be responsible, so it's just humanitarian concern that keeps us there, even though it was immoral for us to go there to begin with. It seems to me if we're responsible if we leave, we'd have been responsible for what Saddam did with the goodies we gave him; if we're not responsible for one, we're not responsible for the other.

Certainly nothing about withdrawing the military would prevent brigades of unarmed Christians from going there to stand between the warring factions and offering to arbitrate. They'd probably have to be Chinese, North Korean, African, or from south of the Rio Grande—we're too broke from the wars to send out more missionaries, and US citizens would have a rather large credibility problem there—but I'd jump at the chance to join them.

They: It's wrong for the government to run up debts and expect our children and grandchildren to pay them.
I: Like Social Security?
They: Yes.
I: Was Social Security ever moral?
They: No.
I: If we did away with Social Security and Medicare, . . .
They: That would be wrong. People depend on those programs.
I: If someone became dependent on a Mafia don and we put the don out of business, would we be doing wrong to the people who depended on him?
They: That's different. What Mafia dons do is illegal.
I: But you said that Social Security is immoral.
They: Yes, but it was legal.

There you have it. If government does it, even if it's immoral, it's OK to keep it going because it's legal. And even if the injustice against the innocent increases every day we continue the immorality, we can't stop—we dare not face God for having stopped—committing the immorality because the people who benefit from the injustice might suffer.

I know my heart is deceitful above all things and so desperately wicked that I can't know it, and I've done worse things than believing the ideas espoused by my sparring partners, but is this really God's truth? Am I really nuts to think that continuing to kill innocent people overseas and rob innocent people at home hurts our chances of being believed when we present the gospel?

(Actually, supporting the status quo probably does improve our chances of being believed by others who support it. Maybe Moses David Berg's Children of God were on to something when they were engaging in "evangelistic" sex.)

I can identify with at least the title of Bach's famous chorale "Komm, Süsser Tod [Come, Sweet Death]." If I'm right in thinking that one component of a believable gospel witness is leaving our targets alone to live their lives in peace and that coercion should only be used in response to violence, and then only as much as necessary to prevent its recurrence (including the death penalty for murder), then I'm ready to leave a world in which most people consider it their holy duty to force innocent people to suffer injustice. And if I'm wrong, I see no way in this world I'll be convinced of the truth; I might as well go Home and take my medicine.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Does the Bible Condone Slavery?

Everyone knows the Bible condones slavery, right? The passages that tell slaves to obey their masters and the lack of a call for slavery's abolition are all the proof any reasonable person needs that the Bible is a work of fiction or worse and those who take it at face value are enemies of all that's good. Furthermore, our advanced society doesn't tolerate slavery in any form.

I disagree on both counts.

I would like to argue that the Bible doesn't as much condone slavery as assume that slavery is an unavoidable condition. But even if it were avoidable, by any definition slavery, even if not so called, is alive and well in the US today.

I find no clearer definition of slavery than the Bible's: "A man is a slave to whatever has mastered him" (2 Pet 2:19). Even a man legally "free" can be a slave to such cruel masters as drugs, money, bad habits, or temper; in short, selfish desires. Or one can be a slave of a good master: the apostle Paul opened many of his epistles by calling himself a slave of Christ (e.g., Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1), one who had a job to do (1 Cor 9:16) with love, concern, and self-denial (1 Thes 2:7; 2 Cor 11:27). So there is no option to not be a slave; you are a slave to whatever makes you do what you do. The only question is to whom or what you are enslaved.

The first slaves mentioned in the Bible were slaves of King Abimelek of Philistia (Gen 20:14). We know nothing about them except that they were given to Abraham as compensation for Abimelek's abduction of Abraham's wife. We can assume that they or their forebears were taken captive in some form of war and treated harshly as slaves: we have no reason to believe that a man who would abduct a sojourner's wife would have been a gentle master. So we can assume that their transfer to Abraham's (extended) family was a form of liberation, a shadow of the greater worldwide liberation to be accomplished by the Messiah, Abraham's greater son.

Did Abraham treat his slaves well? God told Abraham to live a blameless life (Gen 17:1), and one's love for God is shown at least in part by one's work for others' benefit (1 John 4:20). So one would infer that he did, at least in general.

But we know of one occasion when he didn't, when he impregnated a slave named Hagar. He was certainly an old man at that point, and the implication is that she was young, but nothing in the record rules out the possibility that she was favorable to having her status improved by bearing her sheik's firstborn. Indeed, once a mother, she considered her position enviable and secure enough that she could ridicule Abraham's barren wife (Gen 16:4).

But let's assume the worst: he essentially raped a helpless young girl. Does the biblical record chuckle at this? Look at Abraham's later life: he is alienated from his wife (Gen 16:5), he eventually has to send that firstborn son, whom he loves dearly, away (Gen 17:18; 21:11), and Ishmael's descendants were ants in the pants of Abraham's other son Isaac's descendants throughout the Old Testament (and are to this day). This is hardly an endorsement of Abraham's action.

So much for an anecdote. How does biblical law deal with slavery?

The first laws about slaves concern not abductees but debt slaves (Ex 21:1-6, 16). Slaves were to be bought, not captured (except in defensive wars); in fact, when the Bible speaks about the abduction that was the basis of the slave system most people think of when they hear the word slavery, it makes it a capital crime (Ex 21:16). The most coercive circumstances I can find under which people were to be enslaved is if they were guilty of theft or negligence and they were unable to compensate their victims (Ex 22:1).

Violent or irresponsible people need to be restrained somehow. The Bible nowhere prescribes prisons (which are certainly an example of a master-slave relationship), but it does prescribe what we recognize as slavery as a way for violent people to recompense those they have violated and learn habits that will enable them to fit back into society. It is only in this sense that the Bible indeed condones slavery, but this is not what most people mean when they say that the Bible condones slavery.

How are masters to treat their slaves? "Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven" (Col 4:1). That is, they are to love their neighbors as themselves (Le 19:18), something no one who sells his slave's family down the river can claim to be doing.

But wouldn't love for a neighbor demand that a master free his slaves?

I say earlier that a person is always enslaved to something. If this is so, setting a slave "free" may not be the best thing for that slave. The black spiritual "Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child" dates from Reconstruction, after the slaves had been "freed," not from the period of slavery; its message is simple: some people considered themselves worse off under Reconstruction than they had been under slavery. The Bible understands that what is called freedom is not always such in fact, and it makes provision for slaves—not, be it noted, their masters—to make their enslavement permanent (Ex 21:6).

So people can be slaves without being such legally, and some people's best option is to be legally enslaved. Again, the Bible is right to say that slavery is not a matter of legal standing but an inescapable condition.

Now we take up the question of slavery in today's society. Supposedly Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves almost 150 years ago, but by the biblical definition of slavery, he did no such thing. (Nor did he do so according to the usual definition: the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the slaves in those states that had rebelled; the slaves in the states still in the Union were slaves until after the war ended and they were freed by a separate law.)

But surely legal slavery has been abolished? Wrong again. A legal slave is one to whom the law gives the legal right to the fruits of his labor and his personal decisions to another. I have already mentioned parenthetically that our present prison system is slavery.

But by that definition even Lincoln himself was a slave master. What is it but enslavement for him to force his subjects to become soldiers, to face possible death from enemy fire or certain death from "their side's" firing squad, or a jail sentence? Or to force them to accept devalued currency at face value as "legal tender"? Or to destroy the facilities of newspapers in the Union and jail the editors?

And his legacy continues today. What is the expropriation of the fruits of people's labor inherent in taxation and forced participation in medical and retirement schemes if not slavery? What is the war on drugs and nutritional supplements and "non-foods" and the jailing and fining of those who violate government editcs if not slavery? Or "rendition," "enhanced interrogation," or even "detainment"?

We may not have "slavery," but we do have slavery.

The Bible considers us rebels against a God who loves us, wants the best for us, and has sacrificed what he loves most to reestablish a relationship with us (e.g., Is 53:6; Rom 3:11-12; John 3:16). We can expect rebels to be repulsed by their lord's words, and indeed the Bible when correctly understood is hard enough for every Christian I know to swallow without choking on, so I can understand why people disdain and ridicule it. But I would hope that a dose of the truth would defuse some of that disdain and ridicule.